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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
7.9.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

A movie with a title like Minority Report may sound like a boring drama about racism in congress, but it's actually a futuristic sci-fi thriller. The reason it has such a bad title is because it's based on a book by Philip K. Dick. Dick (oh grow up!) is an excellent science fiction writer, but he comes up with truly awful names for all his books. Hollywood usually has enough marketing savvy to change the titles when they make movies out them. Total Recall, for instance, was based on a novel of Dick's entitled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (now that's what I call snappy!).

The most famous movie that has been made out of Dick's work was Blade Runner. I didn't particularly like Blade Runner, but it does have a cool-sounding title. The book on which it was based, however, does not have a cool-sounding title. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sounds like some cutesy children's picture-book, but it's actually a hard-boiled detective story set in a post-apocalyptic nightmare-world full of sex and violence.

The book is set in 2021 after a nuclear war. The radiation from "World War Terminus" has wiped out almost all animal life on the planet and those animals that are still alive are highly valued. Owning an animal is a symbol of status and there's a large industry that supplies near-perfect robotic replicas of animals to those who can't afford real ones.

Artificial humans are also reaching perfection. Androids are nearly indistinguishable from real people and only specialized equipment can distinguish them. Androids are used as servants and menial labour in the colonies. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter hired by the San Francisco Police Department to hunt down and kill androids who have escaped from their masters and fled to Earth.

The book works well as an exciting futuristic pulp-noir, but it raises lots of interesting philosophical and moral questions too. Dick could easily have made this into a simplistic tale of a gallant group of androids fighting for their very survival against terrible oppression, but it's far more complex than that. Rick is the hero of the story, and we see the runaway androids from his perspective—as inhuman machines that have malfunctioned. For the most part, Rick is not interested in wrestling with moral dilemmas; he just wants to save up enough money to be able to afford a real animal to replace the artificial sheep that he's been passing off as authentic to his friends and neighbours.

Throughout the book it is ambiguous whether we are supposed to sympathize with the androids or not. Whenever we begin to feel sorry for them Dick undercuts that feeling of sympathy by reinforcing the fact that they are not really human and not really alive. But at the same time he makes us question how human Rick really is—a man who artificially induces his mood with a device called a "Penfield mood organ" and whose only concern is material possessions. In fact, the most definitively human character in the book seems to be J. R. Isidore—a "chickenhead" who has been so degraded by radiation that he no longer qualifies as fully human.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does not end with a dramatic set-piece speech, like Blade Runner does. The ending raises more questions than it answers and the overall moral is ambiguous. It's a book that will leave you thinking—trying to work out who you should have been rooting for and whether it's a happy ending or a tragedy. Despite the terribly inappropriate title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an excellent and intelligent piece of science fiction. Highly recommended.

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